Saturday, May 19, 2007

"It's almost a underhanded tactic to force the RMA into existence."

Bills reflect El Paso's battle over toll roads


By Brandi Grissom, Austin Bureau
El Paso Times
Copyright 2007

AUSTIN -- El Paso's internal battle over creating a local transportation authority spilled onto the Capitol again this week.

State legislators are working on a major transportation bill they hope to send Gov. Rick Perry by Monday, and the measure has become a weapon in the fight between critics and proponents of the Camino Real Regional Mobility Authority.

State Sen. Eliot Shapleigh, D-El Paso, a proponent of the local authority, passed a measure that he said would ensure the authority's ability to create international toll rail bridges. The bill would prohibit El Paso County from signing contracts to build such bridges.

"I know of no person in El Paso that wants to see El Paso County have the authority to run rails," Shapleigh said.

Shapleigh said his measure, which is included in a bill that gives all other border counties the ability to enter into rail contracts, would centralize mobility decisions in the new agency and prevent future conflicts.

El Paso County, which the FBI raided this week in connection with a public corruption investigation, has its "hands full" and has never had any plans to build rail bridges into Mexico, Shapleigh said.

State Reps. Joe Pickett and Chente Quintanilla added measures to the transportation bill the House approved Thursday that would undo Shapleigh's efforts and give rail authority to the county. Pickett also attached other measures that would specifically affect El Paso's mobility authority, including requiring voter approval for toll projects that cost more than $200 million.

El Paso County Judge Anthony Cobos, who has come to Austin during the legislative session to urge legislators to support measures that would abolish the mobility authority, said Shapleigh should have consulted him.

"It's almost a underhanded tactic to force the RMA [Regional Mobility Authority] into existence," he said.

Quintanilla, Pickett and Cobos accuse Shapleigh of trying to divert rail traffic to New Mexico to benefit developers there, including a wealthy El Pasoan, Bill Sanders.

"He doesn't represent El Paso, it's obvious," Pickett said.

Shapleigh hotly disputed the allegations, citing a 2005 letter he sent to U.S. Rep. Silvestre Reyes, D-Texas, opposing a proposal to move rail to Santa Teresa without a connection in Texas.

In addition, Texas Ethics Commission records show Sanders and his employees gave Shapleigh's Republican opponent nearly $5,000 last year. They gave Shapleigh no money.

Shapleigh said he would attempt to strip out of the transportation bill nearly all the changes Quintanilla and Pickett made, including the vote on toll projects.

"I think we need some safeguards because there isn't any vote of the public," Pickett said.

Shapleigh said that measure would create a "$200 million impediment to getting highways built."

Pickett said he was prepared to fight to make sure the El Paso measures stay put.

There won't be much time to duke it out, though. The bill that contains the El Paso transportation measures also would implement a two-year moratorium on private toll road agreements and is on a fast track for Gov. Rick Perry's desk.

Perry on Friday vetoed a similar transportation proposal, and he has threatened to call a special session if he and lawmakers don't reach a deal, which is outlined in the bill that also contains the El Paso measures.

Brandi Grissom may be reached at; (512) 479-6606.

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